In the Spotlight: 12 Asian and Pacific Islander (API) Social Workers

May 13, 2021

From The New Social Worker

"This past year, anti-Asian violence has been increasing, and some say that dehumanization of Asian and Pacific Islanders (API) in the U.S. is a contributing factor. One way to combat this is to share our stories. After the March 16, 2021, attack in Atlanta, we feel more urgency to uplift and showcase our API community, whose hundreds of years of contributions to America is often missing from mainstream history. API Heritage Month, commemorated in the month of May, is an opportunity to do this and to celebrate Asian and Pacific Islander social workers in the United States. 

Representation matters, and this article is our attempt to establish solidarity and spotlight individuals who represent a range of API identities and who hold a mix of social work roles. API community members come from a large geographical area—the United Nations counts 53 member states and 9 associate members of its Asia-Pacific region. We explored our professional networks informally and reached out to individuals who we admire and whose voices we wanted to amplify. We asked them to share their bios and a reflection on how their API identities connect with their identities as social workers.

     There can be so much power in hearing from and honoring API social workers and colleagues, and we hope the stories below inspire you to celebrate the work of our API community.


Aparna Samuel Balasundaram, MSW, MPhil

Master of Social Work degree from Tata Institute of Social Sciences, India

     I am an award-winning therapist, mental health advocate, former TEDx speaker, and author with 23+ years of international experience. Currently, I am a consultant with a global corporation leading the design and implementation of mental health and resilience strategies, a doctoral candidate in clinical social work with the University of Pennsylvania, and a teaching associate with Columbia University. Formerly, I was the director of social services at a psychiatric hospital in New Jersey, and in India I founded and ran a counselling center for nine years.

     My API identity informs the lens through which I engage with clients, both in Asia and the United States. There are two specific areas that intersect with my API identity: working on the de-stigmatization of mental illness that impacts the help seeking patterns and behaviors amongst the Asian community, including immigrant populations in the United States, and my personal and professional journey of navigating the patriarchal landscape and its impact on the socio-cultural gender-based inequity faced by South Asian women and girls. My doctoral dissertation is focused on the creation of a culturally competent online group intervention for enhancing the resilience and self-esteem of adolescent girls raised in South Asian families.

Christina Tam, PhD, MSW

Master of Social Work and PhD degrees from University of California, Los Angeles

     I am an Associate Scientist at the Alcohol Research Group of the Public Health Institute and obtained my MSW and doctorate in social welfare from the University of California, Los Angeles. My research program examines social determinants that contribute to racial/ethnic disparities in health risk behaviors including substance use. I am Principal Investigator of a National Institutes of Health-funded study to investigate Asian American lifecourse trajectories of heavy alcohol and tobacco use, with a focus on risk and resiliency factors relevant to the Asian American experience.

     For me, to be a social worker means to advocate for those who are underrepresented and marginalized both in research and in practice. This includes APIs who typically are overlooked in research and programming because of prevailing misconceptions that we are a monolithic group and do not experience social problems and poor health. I will continue to use my role and voice as a social worker, researcher, and educator to highlight and uplift the lived experiences of diverse cultural groups to move the needle toward health and social equity.

Goutham M. Menon, PhD, MA, MBA

Master of Social Work degree from Madras School of Social Work, India

PhD from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

     Upon completing my degree in social work from the Madras School of Social Work, India, I was active in using theater and media for public education to reduce stigma against mental illnesses, which led to pursuing a doctoral degree at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Early on, I was blessed to have a core set of mentors who recognized potential in me, and they gave me invaluable practical leadership opportunities to hone my knowledge, values, and skills. That foundation in the early years of my career served me well. After well over a couple of decades in academia, I now serve as Dean and Professor at Loyola University Chicago School of Social Work, where I strive to give back to the profession by being a servant-leader and a mentor for those following their passion.

     My social work training in India grounded me in the importance of “community” in the micro-macro continuum. Currently, I work to harness and promote the “collective” strength and energy of the people we work with for the greater good of society.  Being of South Asian descent and growing up in a pluralistic society in India, I believe, brought notions of mutual respect, tolerance, and embracing differences to the forefront and made it personal for me to bring these values to the roles in leadership that I have been fortunate to experience. 

Hye-Kyung Kang, MA, MSW, PhD

Master of Social Work degree from University of Washington School of Social Work

     After a decade-long clinical practice in communities of color, especially with immigrant and refugee clients, I realized that the change I wanted to promote was not just on the individual level but also on the community and society levels. So, I pursued an MSW and a PhD in Social Welfare. I firmly believe that teaching is an opportunity for social change, and after teaching at Fordham University and Smith College, I was recruited by Seattle University to found a new MSW program in 2015. I am proud of our social justice-focused, community-based clinical MSW program at Seattle University, where I currently serve as the Social Work Department Chair and the MSW Program Director.

     Social justice and community activism are deeply integrated into my scholarship, teaching, and educational leadership. As an immigrant from Korea, I was fortunate that my API identity was shaped through my involvement in social services and community organizing in Seattle’s API community. This experience profoundly informed my conceptualization of social work and my identity as an Asian American woman. I learned from my activist API elders, many of whom founded social service agencies in the 1970s to serve marginalized API communities, that to say that I am Asian American means that I am making a political and historical statement and standing in solidarity with other communities of color. Seattle’s Asian American community is uniquely pan-Asian and has a rich history of activism and collaboration with Black, Latinx, and Indigenous communities. I studied this history for my PhD dissertation and book, Cultural Citizenship and Immigrant Community Identity: Constructing a Multi-Ethnic Asian American Community.

Jeanette C. Takamura, MSW, PhD

Master of Social Work degree from University of Hawai'i at Manoa

     My professional career has taken me in and out of state and federal government, the nonprofit sector, and academia. Previously, I directed a youth and family program in a community center, led an interdisciplinary health team curriculum development and professional education initiative funded by the U.S. Health Resources Services Administration, led a state office on aging and subsequently a state department of health as an appointee of two governors, served as a presidentially appointed/U.S. Senate confirmed assistant secretary within the Department of Health and Human Services, held an endowed professorship in a second higher education institution, and finally, was a dean. Currently, I am a member of the faculty at the Columbia University School of Social Work.

     My experiences in Hawai'i as a very Asian (American) member of the anti-war, race-conscious Baby Boomer generation put me on the path to service—whether through government positions or through administrative and staff positions in the nonprofit and higher education sectors. I am appreciative of my multicultural upbringing in a state where the Aloha Spirit provides an alternative lens and a conscious aspiration for those who embrace its intent. This is not to disavow the embedded racism and economic drivers implicit in the colonization of the islands and Native Hawaiians; the treatment of immigrant plantation workers from Asia, Portugal, and Puerto Rico; and the caste system evident in Hawaii’s big corporations. Much work remains to be done, for sure, but my long-term optimism has always been fueled by the impact of the strategic community and political organizing by AAPI WW II veterans who saw to the enactment of farsighted, equitable health and retirement policies and left me forever inspired by their determination and courage to make the seemingly impossible a reality.

Kelsey Louie, MSW, MBA

Master of Social Work degree from New York University Silver School of Social Work

     I am the proud chief executive officer of GMHC, the world’s first HIV and AIDS Service organization and an adjunct assistant professor of social work at NYU. I am also the proud son of Asian immigrants.

     As an Asian American social worker and CEO of GMHC, fighting stigma, discrimination, homophobia, xenophobia, and racism is in my DNA. The events over the past weeks, months, and year have made clear that we all have a responsibility to speak out against discrimination against Asian people. The COVID pandemic will pass, but stigma can be lasting. We must support actions to combat anti-Asian violence and racism, which includes calling on elected officials and other community leaders to increase local efforts that will redefine community safety and ensure that those who commit criminal offenses against Asian people are held accountable.

Lia W. Marshall, PhD, MSW

Master of Social Work degree from California State University Los Angeles (CSULA)

PhD from UCLA

     I currently work as a researcher at the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health. I received my PhD in Social Welfare from UCLA and my Master of Social Work from California State University, Los Angeles (CSULA). My path to social work began as a massage therapist in an assisted living facility for older adults, where I became acutely aware of health inequities among this population, particularly for older adults of color.

     As the daughter of a Japanese immigrant, I have always viewed the world through dual lenses—that of my mother’s and that of my own. This practice, of holding space for other ways of knowing and existing in the world, along with my passion for social justice, drew me to social work. My education and training added many skills to my “tool belt.” However, this remains at the core of my practice and has also allowed me to excel.

Marianne Yoshioka, PhD, LCSW, MBA

Master of Social Work degree from University of Michigan 

     I am a third generation Japanese Canadian, a lesbian, and a mother. I am a clinical researcher and scholar known for research examining partner abuse among East Asian immigrant women and marital substance misuse treatment. I have demonstrated expertise in how to bring greater racial justice and anti-racism into organizations and their programs. I currently serve as Dean of the Smith College School for Social Work.

     Being Japanese Canadian is a core part of who I am that I bring into everything I do. I grew up with my family’s history of incarceration during WWII and loss of family by the bombing of Nagasaki. Holding these stories and my own lived experience gave me a deep education about race and power and how the socio-political environment shapes choices and opportunities. It is for these reasons that I love the social work profession for its commitments to healing work and social change work and the interconnection between the two.

Mashkhura Akilova, PhD, MSW

Master of Social Work degree from Washington University in St. Louis

     My research, practice, and teaching focus on social welfare systems and workforce development, migration and displacement, and child protection issues in the Global South. I consult with the UN and governments in the post-Soviet region on strengthening the capacities and competencies of social workers. I am a Lecturer in the Discipline of Social Work at Columbia University, and one of the editors of a forthcoming book, Integrated Social Work Practice with Forcibly Displaced Persons.

     Coming from Central Asia, where social work has begun developing very recently and post-war international development is often implemented without much consideration for local expertise and voices, has shaped the focus of my practice. I came to social work when it was unknown in Tajikistan, becoming one of the first officially trained social workers, and decided to focus on educating social workers in the Central Asia region with best-practice knowledge and on preparing social workers in the U.S. for international practice that applies anti-oppressive, decolonized, and culturally relevant lenses. Additionally, the values important in all parts of Asia that emphasize family, community, respect, and consideration of others before oneself have always been my guiding principles in practice. The value of communal well-being influenced me to work on macro systems change and connect individual welfare with social welfare. 

Noel B. Ramirez, DBH, MPH, MSW, LCSW, BCD

Master of Social Work degree from the University of Pennsylvania

     I am a Philadelphia-based licensed clinical social worker and public health professional informed by Immigrant-Filipino parents who love through a sense of home, a chosen Queer family who resists subjugation, and a public health community that seeks to honor social and environmental context. I am the owner and director of Mango Tree Counseling & Consulting, a group mental health practice focusing on Asian/Asian American Mental Health.

     My home was always a refuge for new Filipinos coming to the U.S.  I was moved by my parents’ sense of hospitality and service to their community, which inspired me to pursue this work. This radical act of kindness and warmth continues to center my work today. 

Régina Nguyen, MSW

Master of Social Work degree from Columbia University School of Social Work

     I currently serve as an instructor and staff member in the Languages Across the Curriculum program at SUNY Binghamton. In this capacity, I work with students who seek to globalize their perspectives by exploring any curriculum/topic through the lens of another language and culture. I also work with students who seek to develop their intercultural communication skills.

     While I am incredibly proud of my Vietnamese heritage and Vietnamese American identity, I am also acutely aware of how I am perceived by some. When asked repeatedly where I am originally from, feelings of foreignness, invisibility, and otherness often dwell right underneath the surface. Although it can be painful and disheartening at times, it is my true strength, as I believe that my connection to these very feelings sustains my desire to support and amplify other marginalized voices and perspectives in their integrity.

Stephanie Chang, MSW, MPP

Master of Social Work degree from University of Michigan 

     I am a proud daughter of Taiwanese American immigrants, mom of two Black-Asian daughters, Detroiter, social worker, and mommy legislator. Before I ran for office, I worked as a community organizer on affirmative action, criminal justice reform, immigrants’ rights, and voting rights issues. I am currently a Michigan state senator serving Detroit and Downriver, working to uplift opportunity, equity, justice, and access.

     I bring my values as an Asian American daughter of immigrants to my work as a social worker/public servant, working hard, trying to help the greater good, promoting opportunity—the very thing my parents came to this country seeking. I try to focus every part of the work my team and I do on thinking about how the policy or issue affects the most vulnerable in the community. I also have been proud to work on issues affecting the Asian American community, by introducing bills on language access, forming an APA Legislative Caucus, passing a resolution condemning anti-Asian hate crimes and discrimination, and more.

For More Information

     To learn more about celebrating and empowering the API community:

     To learn more about fighting anti-API racism:


About Asian/Pacific Heritage Month. (n.d.). The Library of Congress. 

ESCAP Member States and Associate Members. (n.d.). The United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific. 

Jeung, R., Horse, A. Y., Popovic, T., & Lim, R. (2021, March 16). Stop AAPI Hate National Report. Stop AAPI Hate. 

The Rise of ‘Dehumanizing’ Anti-Asian Racism in the U.S. (2021, February 12). Asia Society. "